A window of opportunity

Originally published in the Bristol Herald Courier

The eye is magnetically drawn to the sliced pieces of glass scattered around Clark Oakley’s store.

There are reflections everywhere. It’s like being in a 7,000-square-foot carnival fun house, only it’s messier.

Don’t touch anything. One wrong nudge could fragment hundreds of dollars worth of precious, delicate glass.

“Believe me, I’ve broken my fair share of glass,” said Oakley, 42, owner of Whicker Glass Co. on Shelby Street.

With no previous business or glass experience, Oakley reopened the business after buying the property from the previous owners, Stan and Lucille Garland, who were approaching retirement.

He now employs six full-time cutters and installers and a worker who paints doors.

“When I was getting a feel for whether I should buy, I’d go up to people and say ‘Man, it’s a shame that Whicker Glass closed’,” he said. “They’d say ‘Yeah, I had them do work for me 20 years ago. It’s really a shame’.”

The building has new life.

“Everything you see was here when I bought it,” Oakley said. “It was kind of like stepping back in time.”

The store still smells faintly of wood, mainly from the 70-year-old floorboards and the wooden crates with shipments of glass inside. Every so often, there’s an ear-piercing screech of cutters gliding their tools down a fresh sheet of glass.

“This place is perfect for glass because of the high ceiling,” Oakley said.

All the action takes place on a 96-square-foot cutting table with air blasting up through it to make the slide easier.

Primarily, Whicker employees cut and reshape glass for customers who want sliding patio doors, insulated glass, bathroom mirrors or glass in China cabinets.

But those at Whicker have also installed glass storefronts and are currently working on a glass for the ticket boots at Tennessee High’s Viking Hall.

“You can’t be afraid of glass, but you also have to respect it,” said glass cutter Eddie Russell. “If you don’t, you may tense up and that’ll cause you to break it.”

Russell, 56, has been cutting glass for 34 years and coached his new boss.

Oakley grew up in Bristol and graduated from Virginia High School in 1982. He immediately began working for the now defunct Bristol Steel & Ironworks. He spent seven years there and another 10 at American Steel & Iron as a metal door installer.

“This was a big change from steel, which I beat and slammed,” he said. “But it’s amazing how tough glass is. It surprised me.”

Oakley remembers Whicker as a successful business when he was growing up and it bothered him to see the store abandoned.

“I kept driving by and seeing that sign, so finally one day, I called them,” he said.

On a whim, Oakley borrowed the money from a bank and bought the store.

“Really I don’t know why I decided to buy this,” Oakley said. “I guess I just wanted to see i I could make a living from this.”

Last year, the store made just enough to cover expenses, Oakley said. This year, he hopes to increase revenue.

“I’m not really a huge planner,” he said. “I’m more of a one-day-at-a-time person.”

Whicker painter Sandra Poore, 24, said Oakley is “very nice to work with.” Poore has been with the business for a month. Her job is to take old doors or frames and redecorate them for resale.

The aspiring artist said being a glass painter is “the perfect day job.”

“They’re all good people,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else.”